27 July 2009

In which I lay out the plan

In the previous entry — the first of this blog — I set out, at considerable length, a description of who I am and why I'm doing what I'm doing.

The Princess read it, and liked it, and then she said ... uh, it's pretty long, isn't it?

Yes, dear, I know.

I see it like this: Nobody ever reads the first few posts of a blog when they're initially written and posted. Well, unless the writer is a celebrity of some sort; in that situation there'd be some built-in readership up front. Say, if Ryan Seacrest were to start a blog, nobody would read that either, because I'm talking about
celebrities. Ha! Ha! Don't cut me, baby.

(For the record, the Princess is a fan of the Idol. I will attempt to restrain myself but I can't promise it won't be mentioned again.)

The important bit is, nobody's reading this yet, so there's nobody to be scared off by a couple thousand words of verbal diarrhea. People come to blogs (if they come to them at all) midstream. You're curious about a topic, so you do a search — or you're emailed a link because someone thinks you'll find it interesting — and, a couple of clicks later, you find yourself reading an entry from somewhere in the middle of the blog's archives. With luck, you're engaged by what you read, and you start hopping backward and forward, looking at other posts. And if you're really excited by the material, you scroll to the bottom of the archive, click on the first post, and begin reading from the start.

If that's you, and if you're reading this now because you happened across another entry in the blog and have been browsing further, then welcome, and thanks. And thank you especially if you plowed through the entirety of that epic first post, and are now plowing through this one. I knew there was a lot I wanted to put out there, right at the top, about my background and the intentions for this blog, so the reader (as Commander Adama says about Admiral Cain) "understands the context." And I figured, per above, that the safest place for it would be the first couple of entries, serving as a sort of introductory prologue.

(By the way, I also can't promise that references to
Battlestar Galactica won't randomly appear as well. I am legion, I contain multitudes.)

So now that I've taken care of the who and the why, I need to address the what. Specifically, the what-comes-next stuff, in terms of what I'm planning to do, how I'm planning to present it, and what I hope people will get out of it. Which means, if you'll bear with me a little longer, just a few more words here at the outset, where they will sit as something like a foreword, waiting to be unearthed by inquisitive visitors.

And I promise, regular posts won't be nearly as long as these first two.

Okay, so. As described in the previous entry, I have known for a little while that I want to add Iranian cooking to my culinary repertoire. This is partly in service to my girlfriend (who per the previous entry has asked to be called the Persian Princess) and her large and welcoming family. Iranians love to get together and party, and they love to lay out amazing feasts. I've already cooked for many of them, in my own style, but I feel I'll be an especially gracious host if I can serve them their own food, made authentically and correctly. In Iranian culture, the host takes his or her social responsibility very seriously; this will, I hope, be a significant gesture of respect on my part.

And, of course, it's partly in service to myself, because I am, by nature, compulsively curious. Now that I'm aware there's something significant I don't know, I will be consumed with the need to study, to learn, until I feel I've got a handle on it. Not to mention that, from a practical point of view, it'll make my cooking better, in general, to become familiar with the underpinnings of a cuisine very different from the norm.

While I've been pondering that goal, I've also been fielding the urgings of the Princess to begin a blog on some topic or other. She respects my interests and opinions, she says, and she seems to believe I would have interesting things to say. I know, to some extent, she's being nice to me, and flattering me, because while she's a strong and capable woman she's still quite girly in many ways, and she needs to keep me around so I can deal with big scary bugs in the house, among other man-related responsibilities. On the other hand, she really does seem quite determined about getting me a project where I can express myself.

So I've accepted the compliments, and I've kept the notion on a back burner, but I haven't really taken it seriously enough to plan anything, for a couple of reasons.

First, something like this is a metric buttload of work. I keep myself busy, and I don't exactly need another drain on my time. If I'm going to launch a major project, it had better be something I'm interested in, and that I think matters.

Even so, the second reason is more important: As I said at the top of the first entry, the world doesn't need another generic food blog. There are thousands and thousands of words being troweled across the virtual landscape, many for no purpose beyond the desire of their writers to make digital noise.

They're basically of two species — look-what-I-cooked, and look-what-I-ate.

In the first, the blogger makes a dish or a meal, sometimes strictly according to the recipe(s), more commonly working with a more or less freely adaptive hand, or occasionally making up an original; then the blogger writes about it. Maybe it's interesting, and maybe it isn't, but there's no point of view, no
adventure, to lead you into other entries — to get you interested in the story of the writer's experience. Right here is a good example of an average blog of this type; it's inoffensive, and the recipe is competent and conventional. But why would you go back and keep reading? (And that's apparently one of the better ones. I don't want to be mean and pick on anyone, but look at this. I'm sure she's very nice, but come on.)

The second variety is more common, and, at least in my view, far more irritating. In this type of food blog, somebody goes to a restaurant, eats, usually takes pictures of the plates, and then writes about it. There are lots of these, and they mostly come off as amateurish nonsense, like kindergarten gourmands who desperately want to be taken seriously as famous and powerful restaurant critics.
Check out a representative example, where the blogger manages to write two hundred words or so without saying a single thing of meaningful interest, despite having as his subject one of the world's most unique and fascinating cuisines.

And the worst thing about this second type of blog, in my opinion? All those pretty pictures with which the entries are larded, like tourist shots at Disneyland. Just imagine, you're sitting in some high-end restaurant, enjoying the food and the conversation with your companion, and then the nitwit at the next table hauls out his Coolpix and starts snapping away at his plate. He thinks he looks sophisticated ("ooo, check
me out, I'm a food blogger"), but really he's just a distracting rube. (I like taking pictures of food; but I photograph my own.) Now, to be fair, some blogs of this species are very well written, but I just can't get over the whole self-important-blowhard nature of them, where any jamoke with internet access can set himself up as some sort of authority.

But there's another kind of food site — perhaps, rather, a subset of the first species — which has come to be known as a "cook through blog," or just a "cook through."

The first of these, or at least the first to achieve prominence (my research assistant is either on sabbatical or doesn't exist; you decide), was the
Julie/Julia Project, in which a lowly white-collar drone in New York gave herself a year to make everything in Julia Child's first cookbook, and wrote extensively about the experience as it happened. That was more of a prototypical blog, a stream-of-consciousness exercise where the food was largely a MacGuffin driving the writer's journey of self-exploration; only rarely did the blogger go into detail about what she was cooking, and how it went. Nevertheless, despite an inconsistent focus on the food, Julie/Julia established the genre, and prompted other writers to attempt the same feat, using different cookbooks as their inspiration.

The gold standard of these is the work of Carol Blymire, who began working through Thomas Keller's incredible
French Laundry Cookbook, and writing an accompanying blog, in 2007. She has since finished that project, and moved on to an even more daunting challenge: the cookbook for Alinea, Chicago's temple of cutting-edge experimental cuisine, considered by some to be the best restaurant in the country. Her blogging stands apart for its accessibility combined with its ambition: She knows she's doing something insanely difficult, and sometimes she loses her footing, but she enjoys the challenge and successfully conveys that enjoyment to her readers. And best of all, the food is front and center. She rarely digresses into personal confession; her blogs are focused solely on the experience of the cooking, which she communicates with what seems like almost effortless wit, charm, and energy. If you like food writing, I can't recommend her sites highly enough. Just be warned, if you get hooked, you'll find yourself staring blearily at the clock, wondering how the last several hours evaporated.

(There are other cook-through blogs besides Blymire's. In addition to those named in the WSJ article linked above, you can find a roll-call
here. Some of them are quite good, and I invite you to poke around. But as far as I'm concerned, Blymire's are the best.)

Anyway: I was aware of, and already reading and loving, Blymire's blog when the Princess started suggesting a food-related writing project to me. Since I was keeping the general idea at arm's length, I wasn't pondering my options in any depth, so the notion of attempting a cook-through blog never occurred to me.

Then, a few weeks ago, we got to see an advance screening of
Julie & Julia, the movie inspired by the Julie/Julia blog described above. The Princess liked the movie a lot; I thought it was half of a good film. Meryl Streep is simply miraculous, playing Julia Child during the years she discovered food in France and began transforming herself into the most famous cooking teacher in the world. Without exaggeration, every moment Streep is on screen is transportingly joyful. Her performance is pure magic, and the story is engaging and moving, especially the purity of the loving relationship between Child and her husband, played marvelously by Stanley Tucci. Unfortunately, this half of the movie is welded, in a sledgehammer-subtle parallel structure, to the story of blogger Julie Powell discovering herself through Child's cookbook. I like Amy Adams, but she's let down badly by the material. Where the Julia Child story is luminous and lovely, the Powell story is obvious and shallow, quintessential Nora Ephron twaddle. Julie & Julia is absolutely, unquestionably worth seeing for Meryl Streep's performance, but be prepared to wait patiently through some flavorless pap whenever she's not the center of the film.

And there concludes this brief resumption of my former career as an online movie reviewer. (Yeah, this isn't my first blog.)

The point here — and yes, I do, eventually, get around to the point — is that in the wake of seeing the film, I suddenly put the pieces together, and I knew what my food-writing project needed to be. I wanted to learn to cook Iranian food, and I had a template for how to do this, and write about it. I could do a cook-through.

And best of all, there's a perfect book for the project:
New Food of Life, written by Najmieh Batmanglij, and published by Mage.

New Food of Life
is the revised edition of the earlier Food of Life, and expands on the first book with more recipes and other information, and many pages of color photography. The book also includes excerpts from poetry and Persian stories, as well as some concluding sections about customs and ceremonies (and, of course, the accompanying food). It's a highly regarded book, nicely designed and clearly written, containing (according to those who would know) pretty much the complete list of old-school, traditional Persian cuisine. The Princess and I have other Iranian cookbooks on the shelf (plus a wider array of Mideast-related titles), but if you had to get just one, it would be this one. It is, almost certainly, the definitive book of classic Iranian food in English.

So what better way to learn to cook the food than to cook it according to the number-one book about it?

(Incidentally, while I'm thinking about it, I probably need to explain my use of the terms "Persia," and "Persian," versus "Iran" and "Iranian." It's a digression, but it's important, because I don't want anyone to get the wrong impression. To be strictly accurate, the two forms are not interchangeable, and despite misconceptions, "Persia" is not an "old" name for Iran. Historically, Iran has pretty much always been "Iran" for the Iranians. The word "Persian" comes from a word in ancient Greek that may have been a corruption of an Iranian word describing the border. As a result, while Iranians have, for over 2500 years, consistently referred to the place they were, and are, as "Iran," everybody else labeled the region Persia. Then the 20th century happened, and the two competing terms began accumulating political baggage; eventually, some people, after leaving the country of Iran, started choosing to describe themselves as "Persian" to make some point or other. In my experience, meeting the Princess's family and circle of Iranian friends, and asking, gingerly, about this issue, no two people will agree precisely on the appropriate usage of the two terms. They'll agree that "Iran" is the historically accurate local term, but beyond that it's a crap shoot; the bottom line is that folks label themselves according to individual idiosyncracy more than anything else. Since I have no interest, in this blog, in getting into the minutiae of Iranian political semantics, which I'm not really qualified to analyze anyway, I am electing to ignore all the complications and use the terms interchangeably, as if they're exactly synonymous, even though I know it's sort of wrong to do so. Please keep in mind, I don't mean anything by it.)

(Oh, and it's pronounced "ih-RAHN," and "ih-RAHN-ian." If you say "eye-RAN," and "eye-RAIN-ian," you sound like a doofus. Just so you know.)

I mulled over the idea for a day or two, and then I proposed it to the Princess. She stared at me for a moment, and then she started to beam. She became so immediately happy — so bouncingly, squealingly, clap-handingly giddy — that I knew I'd finally hit on something with real merit. We talked about it (or, rather, I should say, I talked, and she bubbled), and after some discussion of logistics, we were settled. This would be my project.

And there we have it. I'm going to cook every recipe in New Food of Life, and write about the experience as I do.

It's not that simple, of course. Let's refine some of the parameters, establishing what I will and will not be doing.

Cook every recipe — yes.
That's pretty straightforward. However, where reasonable and appropriate, I'll be making substitutions if approved as optional in the book. For example, there's one recipe for a whole stuffed lamb, which is crazy-making just to think about. For a few minutes, I considered digging a huge firepit in the back yard, but then I saw that the recipe allows a leg of lamb to be substituted, so the shovels will stay where they are. On the other hand, the recipe about cooking the whole head? Totally making that.

Publish the recipe — no.
This is a tradition among cook-through bloggers. The point is to relate the experience of cooking the food, not to reproduce the cookbook. That would be a violation of copyright, and since I take intellectual property extremely seriously, I won't do it. And besides, since part of my purpose is the promotion of Iranian food, and of the book I'm cooking from, it would defeat that purpose if I simply gave you all the recipes. If you're interested in this food, either now or after reading about my experience, I want you to go get the book. (For the record: I am not associated in any way with Mage, the publisher.) I will follow the model already established by other cook-through bloggers: I'll talk about, and usually show, the ingredients, and many of the steps, but without measurements, temperatures, cooking times, and other specific details. You want the recipes, you'll have to acquire the cookbook yourself.

Treat the recipe as gospel — yes.
As I'll be working from this specific book, I won't be deviating much from the recipes as written. I may, from time to time, compare other versions of the recipes, either for clarification or simply out of curiosity. Besides New Food of Life (and the prior edition, Food of Life), we have this and this and this on the shelf, along with this, originally issued in separate volumes but now combined into one book, plus an only-in-Farsi book not normally available in this country. Between them, there's a lot of redundancy in recipe description. And as I discussed in the prior post, because this cuisine is truly ancient, and has been refined over the centuries into classic preparations, there isn't a lot of variation in approach for a given dish. The recipes in the other books, therefore, are quite similar to New Food of Life. Still, that's my master source, so those are the recipes I'll be following. Where there's a discrepancy, New Food of Life governs.

Question the recipe — no.
I have a fair amount of experience in the kitchen, and I'm pretty good at reading recipes. Give me the formula for an Italian or a Thai dish, and I can tell just from the recipe essentially how the food will come together and taste. I don't have that yet with Persian food, so my natural impulses are out of whack. I've been doing a little bit of preliminary planning work, and already I'm having to fight the inclination to tinker with the recipes: "this doesn't seem like enough eggs," say, or, "I could add lemon juice," or whatever. That would torpedo the whole enterprise, of course, so I'm going to stick to what's written. I do reserve the right to adjust proportions of the whole, depending on ingredient availability and serving context (cooking for two versus cooking for twenty), but as long as I'm cooking the book, I'm not going to mess with flavors or textures.

Deal with the meat problem — yes.
One of the distinctive things I've noted as I start my planning is just how meat-centric the cuisine really is. If Persian food is known in the West for anything, it's for kebabs, succulent morsels of savory meat — beef or lamb, whole or ground, or chicken — impaled on distinctively flat skewers, and grilled. But the focus on meat doesn't end there. A striking majority of the recipes in the book include at least some meat component; even the chapter titled "Vegetables" is all about hollowing out the produce and stuffing it with animal products. This will pose a bit of a challenge, not in cooking, but in eating. We're going to be having this for dinner at least a couple nights a week for a very long time, and we need to put a variety of things on the plate, not just for health but also for sanity. I don't want to exhaust the handful of salad recipes in the book and then start repeating, for that way lies madness. Thus, I reserve another right: to go off-script on the vegetable component, and braise some green beans or chard or something as is necessary to round out the meal.

Digress — yes, briefly and occasionally.
While this blog will primarily be about working through New Food of Life, I'm still a foodie, after all, living in a great city with great restaurant options. As such, I'll want to eat out on a semi-regular basis. Also, the Princess and I are tentatively planning some vacation travel to a couple of food meccas, where top establishments will be patronized and (hopefully) glorious food consumed. I may want to say a few words about our experiences, as much to maintain discipline and stay in the writing habit as anything else. But I won't be trying to do full-fledged formal reviews, and I will not be pulling out a digital camera at the dinner table, because I am not an enormous flaming douchebag. (Hush, you.)

Remember the readers — yes, emphatically yes.
I'm doing this for myself, but I'm doing it in public, making it a writing exercise, so people besides me can get something out of it. And speaking of which, I should probably clarify who I would like to see as the blog's demographic.

Although I will naturally welcome the widest possible audience, I will be keeping three groups foremost in mind as I write up my experiences. First: Americans (and other English-speaking Westerners) who are interested in ethnic cuisine generally or Iranian food specifically, either cooking or eating, and who would like to learn from the attempts of a food-savvy American to master this largely-unknown culinary tradition. Second: Iranian transplants who have grown up on a daily diet of American food (or another Western country's), and who want to get back in touch with their roots, starting from a place of unfamiliarity. And third: Iranians who already know their food well, and will recognize everything I'm doing, and can respect (or be amused by) this foolhardy American's march off into a mysterious culinary world. It's this last group that I really hope shows up here; I won't mind some teasing and laughter if I screw something up, but I could also use the advice. I have the Princess, of course, and her mother, as resources, but they won't always be available, and even then, they can't know everything. So any infusion of additional knowledge would be welcome.

And the final rule:

Enforce a time limit — no.
Estimating the number of recipes in the book, if I can manage four a week, the project will take about two years to complete. That seems long, and I'll try to be more aggressive than that, but I'm not going to punish myself to get it done. Life has a way of, y'know, happening, so I need to give myself room to deal with anything as it comes up, and not add pressure. This is supposed to be fun, right? That said, I will be buckling down for the marathon, and intend to publish at least once per week, if not more often.

All right, so, that's the scoop. That's who I am, what I'm doing, and why and how I'm doing it. If you've read all of this, you have my respect, and my thanks.

I should also thank, in advance, the Persian Princess, who has already been very patient with me as I've gotten the planning underway, and who will no doubt be generous with her time, helping me through the next months and years. I also need to thank her mother, a sweet, kind, and tough-as-a-knife-fight woman, who is equally supportive of, and generous to, her loved ones, me now included. And I'm sure at some point I'll probably have to lean on someone in our wider circle, for research, procurement, or some other form of assistance. Something like this doesn't get done without a lot of people behind the scenes, and I appreciate knowing the Princess and I have good people around us who can be counted on. All of these people have the expertise I currently lack; it's with their assistance that I intend to remedy that.

The bottom line is, anything I get right, I will probably get right because I'll have help; and anything I get wrong, it'll almost certainly be my own fault.

And that, as they say, is that.

So, what's first?

I'm going to start simple. First up, a cucumber and mint salad, and a "koo-koo," which is a Persian quiche. Stay tuned.

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